Burlesque

For 15-year-old girls, and the men who long to be them
★★
☆☆☆☆☆
Released: 
2010
Director: 
Steve Antin
Starring: 
Cristina Aguilera, Cher, Cam Gigandet, Stanley Tucci
The Setup: 
Bizarre assemblage of cliches that would only make sense to the severely emotionally-disabled.
Discussion: 

I've had a few Netflix blahs lately, watching a few movies I get halfway through and then lose interest in finishing, and feeling like I have nothing at home worth watching. Then I checked my queue online and had a moment of "Holy shit! I have Burlesque at home!" Numerous people have urged me to watch this, saying it is an instant camp classic, with tons of ludicrous moments. It has those to be sure, but it's too knowingly silly to really be that much fun. In fact, trying to decode exactly what this movie IS and WHO it could possibly have been made for is part of the fun.

I should mention that I thought a little touch of prescription drug abuse might put me in the perfect frame of mind for this film, and it did exactly that. God knows how bored I would have been otherwise. We open at some diner in Iowa where Christina Aguilera as Ali [pronounced Allie] is sitting bored on a countertop. The place appears to have no customers, which makes it unlikely they would need two waitresses on shift. Ali decides, out of the blue, that she's going to leave immediately for L.A. and try to make it as a star. Just like you or I might say "I'm going to call in sick tomorrow," she says "I'm moving to L.A. tomorrow." She's psychotic, I mean impulsive, like that. By the way, THIS is what Cristina looks like as a diner waitress:

She closes the place so she can sing a rendition of "Something's Got a Hold On Me," which she does under the credits. Now I have not followed Aquilera's career aside from that hideous "Beautiful" song and this one horrible faux-soul number that was playing every fucking time I went too the gym and soon became the bane of my existence, so this as one of the first times I ever really heard her sing. It's like soul-sound-a-like. She throws out all these throaty growls, but they have no depth or feeling--no soul. This is rendered a tiny bit more embarrassing by a quick shot of her throwing an Etta James record [vinyl LP, natch] in her suitcase as she leaves the trailer park [seriously, the trailer park]. It's enough to make you wonder--has she actually heard Etta James? It's difficult to imagine that she has heard and admires Etta James, yet is so unable to put any feeling into her own singing. Maybe because she's trying to hard to be a sound-a-like?

Anyway, you start to put the elements together: Iowa, diner waitress, trailer park, bus to L.A. to become a star, and you start to wonder: what IS this? Can they be serious? It must be some form of knowing parody. We'll leave that question til later. Anyway, by the time the credits have ended, she's gotten an apartment and pounded the pavement looking unsuccessfully for jobs, ludicrously made up, impeccably lit, and over-the-top glamorous the whole time. It was enough to make me wonder--is this REALLY directed by Lars Von Trier? OH, it's not. My mistake. It as written and directed by a man named Steve Antin, who failed to achieve success as a pretty-boy actor, and might be most famous for being David Geffen's boyfriend during the 80s. This is one auteur's personal vision that he fought to bring to the screen!

So Ali sees this club called Burlesque and is drawn in. Don't miss the significant shot of the giant high-rise luxury condo building across the way. That's not there by accident. Ali goes in, pays the doorman [we'll get back to him] and sees Cher on stage, singing the first of three songs about Burlesque. Okay, Cher is 64 years old and I haven't seen her in a while, so her first appearance here is like "WHAT is THAT?" She's a bit distorted and her skin looks featureless, like plastic. I told my friend Howard about this and he deadpanned "Oh, they used the animatronic Cher in those early scenes just to get you used to her, then they brought the real one on later." Anyway, Ali meets and charms the bartender, Jack, and goes backstage to meet Cher, as Tess [let's just call her Cher] and Stanley Tucci as her wry gay assistant Sean. Cher dismisses Ali out of hand for no reason. But really--is right during a performance really the best time to go in asking for a job? Anyway, Ali comes out, sees that the waitress on staff is neglecting her duties, picks up a tray and begins waitressing. Soon--she's got a job! As a waitress. We skip the scene where the other waitress comes up and says WTF? but just as well. The other waitress simply vanishes after this.

Now in here Ali has made several impassioned pleas that this, burlesque, is PRECISELY what she wants most to do in life. Okay, so her huge dream that she came from Iowa for is to be an upscale stripper? THAT'S her dream? And we know that Ali is more about singing than dancing... so why doesn't she pursue something where she can sing? This can hardly be the only gig in L.A. This is also where you start to wonder if this thing is really imparting the best messages to young women, showing the pop star they admire and came out to see desperate to be an up-market stripper. But wait--worse messages to come!

Meanwhile, more questions of "What IS this movie?" will continue as we are introduced to Kristen Bell as Nikki, current star of the show, who is a mega diva and also apparently has a drinking and punctuality problem. She's late, so another dancer is sent on instead, then Nikki comes out and you sit there like "Are we REALLY going to sit through the cliché thing of two women trying to push each other aside and hog the spotlight?" Yes, we are. Meanwhile Ali is out on the floor doing showgirl-like gestures as she serves drinks, and we are meant to believe that her laser-sharp mind is absorbing the details of every routine. At a certain point we also have to muffle laughs as Ali decides that she must "study" the history of burlesque, which, we are shown, she accomplishes by looking through picture books.

Then Ali goes home and finds her apartment ransacked--like, THOROUGHLY ransacked, as though by the Russian mob looking for a massive stash or heroin or something. Pardon me if I'm not so convinced that thieves in contemporary L.A. really turn over the low-rent apartments of struggling dancers. There are RICH people in L.A. to be robbed, you know. Around now is when I had to note that this story is pretty much directly aping that of Coyote Ugly, of all things, which forces us again to confront the question of what this movie is supposed to BE. It is a string of hoary showbiz-movie cliches, a pastiche of earlier movies, and I think it's supposed to be a "fun" collection of moments you loved in other musicals, recycled here with a patently phony gloss as a fun, silly lark. Ezra Pound had a famous quote along the lines of "imitation can never rise above its master," which is in full effect here: with these low goals, the best this movie can be is a pale carbon copy of better movies, which you might want to see because you have time to kill.

So Ali's calamity forces her to show up on the doorstep of Jack the bartender, where she mopily confesses that she has no one to call--she has no one in the whole wide world! Obviously he lets her stay. That night he is noodling around on a tiny keyboard and you--knowing that every cliche WILL indeed be enacted--can almost mouth along as Ali says "That's beautiful. Who wrote that?" and know with certainty that Jack will respond "I did," which is exactly what happens. At this point you will also know that the movie will end with Jack finally finding the confidence to make his music heard, and it will of course be BRILLIANT! That's what I'm saying about the increasing questions about what the point of watching this movie when you know EVERYTHING that is coming... and there's over an hour left. Don't you have laundry to do?

In the morning we endure another painfully phony scene in which Ali realizes that Jack is straight, and engaged, and she leaves in a pouring rainstorm, causing him to have to go out and literally pick her up and carry her back indoors. We are meant to believe that there is a simmering attraction between the two, which he cannot act on because of his impending marriage.

Anyway, do I even need to tell you that there is an evil developer who wants to buy Cher's club and build luxury condos? And that the club is underperforming and Cher's under increasing pressure to sell? Including from poor Peter Gallagher, who shows up numerous times looking greasy, as Cher's ex-husband who owns half the club. Boy, a lot of subplots and characters here, no? And Antin assumes that he only needs develop them all so far, as they're just clichés and we can fill in the details from what we already know from other films.

Meanwhile Cher runs into one of her dancers puking in the toilet and says "Oh no," and you're like--WHAT?! Is this movie going to confront the horror of bulimia?--but no such luck. It's that the dancer is pregnant so we can have a big wedding and more "whoop" moments at the end. Anyway, Cher promises that she will "take care" of the dancer, and again you're like "What? This owner of a struggling upscale strip club is going to pay maternity leave?" Because I really don't think that's going to happen. But it does happen in FANTASYLAND, where this movie takes place!

Then [one of] the big moment[s]! It's auditions and they just can't find the right dancer! WHERE can they find the right dancer? Where, I ask you? Seriously, WHERE? Cher and Sean are bemoaning their fate and refusing to see Ali, when suddenly Ali comes out and starts auditioning! Cher cuts the song and refuses to see her, giving the speech from the trailer about how "You have to make me believe that you belong up there [as an upscale stripper]" and Ali goes through her routine and--okay, sit down, because you are NEVER GOING TO BELIEVE THIS--Ali gets the job! Actually, she doesn't at first, because Cher is against her, to the point where you start to be like "Christ, what is Cher's beef with this girl?" because there's never any reason for it. No reason except--story contrivance! One other thing to note about this scene is that EVERYONE is present for Ali's big audition; Jack the bartender just happens by! Nikki the rival dancer was in the club JUST at that very moment! It's all just a magical world sprinkled with fairy dust! Made with REAL fairies.

So it's montage time! Actually, it's BEEN montage time all along, but whatever. During one of these montages we see Ali--gorgeously backlit by the L.A. sun--suddenly executing BIG dance flourishes and gestures as she's walking down the street. It's embarrassing, instant camp. Then, surprisingly, we actually SKIP Ali's first night performing. But we join her afterward, when one of the dancers suggests they all go out for pizza, and they all go--except for Ali! They didn't mean HER. Actually, though, you can tell she would have been totally welcome if she could just scrape together her bullshit fast enough. But it's okay, because soon mama Cher stops by for some sisterly BONDING. Bonding that merits an entirely new paragraph!

And here it is! This gets a new paragraph because it as this moment when I realized who this movie was made for. Cher plops right down and starts doing Ali's makeup, and starts talking about how her mother used to have all this makeup and Cher was so fascinated by it all and couldn't wait til she was grown up and--she could throw it all out, burn her bra, and find her place as an intelligent, liberated woman who doesn't define herself through her attractiveness to men? Actually no, so she could plop on the makeup and line up in the same losing game her mom was in, and which she's now "passing on" to Ali. She says "When you put on makeup, you're like an artist. But instead of painting on canvas, you're painting a face." We're actually going to pull back from picking apart every single thing wrong with that statement, because it was at that moment when it hit me: This movie is made for DRAG QUEENS. You have this baldly fantastic story made up 100% of cliches recycled from other movies and without a genuine, heartfelt moment in its entirety, and who would that appeal to? Drag queens. People who are also about living in a fantasyland, who might believe that erotic dancing and makeup has some sort of merit as an art form, and get into the fabulousness of women all dolled up and doing massive production numbers. Which is not even to mention Cher.

That settled, we proceed. But wait, it's time for another BIG MOMENT! Cher fires Nikki [Kristen Bell, remember her?] for drinking and being late! She replaces her with Ali! And they're in the middle of a big production number when Nikki pulls the plug, and the music stops! Cher is about to drop the curtain, when--some bestial wail arises from Ali! This guttural vocalization is recognized as "singing" from those gathered, and Cher leaves the curtain up! Ali sings the rest of the song, saving the show! Afterward Cher can't believe that Nikki can sing like that--and is going to build an entire show around her, to premiere the following night! And YES, the very next night, there's a whole new show with all-new songs and elaborate sets and it was ALL PUT TOGETHER IN LESS THAN 24 HOURS! It's amazing how these things can happen! then the other girls invite Ali out for pizza and she feels so accepted! Although: as if any of these girls, whose livelihoods depend on their bodies, are eating pizza.

Around this time the doorman makes a bit more of an appearance and--oh my God, is that Alan Cumming? In what is little more than a glorified cameo? Sadly, it is. I guess things aren't going that great for Alan. But what's become more than a bit apparent by now is that this movie is crammed with characters who are present, but have nothing to DO. Cumming just stays on the edges. Bell's Nikki is there, bitching constantly, but has nothing else to DO, and no development. Poor Peter Gallagher comes on periodically to urge Cher to sell, but that is all he gets to do. Even the main characters get little to no development--Cher refuses to sell! Then gets a higher offer! Then refuses again, repeat.

One of the characters that gets little to no development is the developer who wants to buy the club, Marcus. He starts dating Ali, and she's happy to get his attention, allowing Sean to start playing wise old gay man who urges Jack to make a play for her before it's too late. There has been a ton of drama and flirting between Ali and Jack that I have just skipped over because geez, we can't go into everything wrong here. Anyway, despite the fact that the place is now packed every night, and Cher has been able to raise the door price to $50 from $20, and Ali has made the cover of the entertainment section (singers are so very unusual in L.A., you see), Cher still isn't making enough money! You might also wonder--WHERE are all these songs coming from? You might also notice that this thing is ONLY HALF OVER and for fuck's sake, it feels like forever. Here is where I started fast-forwarding.

So in here we see Tucci as Sean smoking for like a half-second, for the first time in the movie and--why? I thought we were never going to see him smoking again, but he does once more. Oh wait, it's time for Cher's big ballad! She's on her way out the door when the dj asks her if she wants to rehearse now or in the morning, and she say oh, may as well get it over with now. It is one of the more arbitrary reasons for a sudden number, especially as it turns out to be a big mopey "survivor" ballad that would obviously never appear in the shows as we've seen them so far. Then somewhere in here Tucci gets his appointed attention, as first we see him throw a big over emotive scene at Cher so she Won't Give Up, and then bedding some cute guy who Just Might Be The One, all of which is basically this movie's way of saying "WOOOOO-ooooo, hey gay boys!" I should also mention that Sean's bedroom decor is, uh, what you might call a dick-wilter. Unless you like things that are just SO EXQUISITE.

Okay, so then Nikki shows up again--surely the largest role in which an actress has NOTHING to do--and is supposedly drunk, forcing poor Cher to have to mutter the line "How many times have I held your head over the toilet while you threw up everything but your memories?" Well, we'll have to take their word for it, because we only ever see Nikki be at best mildly annoying. Then Jack breaks up with his fiancé for no reason (except that the movie is ending and he needs to get with Ali), and she sees Marcus (the developer, remember) and his architectural model and she, like, REALIZES that he wants to buy Cher's property!

So she runs back and needs to talk to Cher, but Cher won't listen! Causing Ali to shout "Do you ever listen to anyone but yourself?" which is supposed to like cut to the core, and Cher even nods like "touché, sister," but it's just another triple-snap [and a head bob] moment that nothing in the movie has led up to. Anyway, so Ali goes to Cher with the idea of air rights, and they go to the developer across the street and--it's James Brolin? Wait, so Marcus ISN'T the developer of the giant condos across the street? There are TWO developers? One of whom hasnt been seen til this moment? He's just some RANDOM developer who wants Cher's club for like--NO reason? I mean it would make sense if he were right across the street. This is one of the biggest mistakes of the movie, letting you go through the whole thing assuming Marcus MUST be the developer across the street, then at the last second switcherooing him for someone else.

So I'm like; "Okay, all thats left to happen here is for Nikki to hatch some evil plot," but no, she shows up and is all repentant, having quit drinking (it is just a SNAP to quit drinking, folks!) and ready to play nice and work together. Then Jack and Ali get together, Cher gets to keep the club, and everything is GREAT!

So how was it? Well, suffice to say it is definitely not my kind of movie. The fact that you're just watching a story that is just an arrangement of cliches and has no real reason to exist aside from to showcase a few divas and pass time means that about halfway through the fun is over and you just have to endure the rest. It's not like there's going to be any surprises or revelations coming up, so you just sit there waiting for it to end. All of the characters are just archetypes from other movies, which would be okay if they were developed enough to be interesting, but the main characters are just a bunch of variations of gay diva zingers, and the rest are just symbols. I can't recall seeing a movie with so many peripheral characters who have nothing to do. Bell, Cumming, and Gallagher are just there to deliver their one note over and over, which they do and that's it. It's also rather amazing the large amount of content this story has in common with Coyote Ugly, to the point where it can be considered a kind of remake. Of COYOTE UGLY.

Yeah, well, that's about it. Unless you plan to have a bunch of gay friends over who are into divas, and you're all going to be drinking and laughing and paying very little attention to the movie, I can't imagine much of any reason to sit through this.

Should you watch it: 

If you love divas and have extremely low expectations from your entertainment.